Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and loud Hosannas! It concludes with the Triduum, the Three Days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. I’m writing this on Good Friday, the second day of the Triduum. Last night, Maundy Thursday, the altar was stripped: The candles were extinguished and removed. Candles represent the "Light of the World." Jesus said, "I Am the light of theWorld." So in recognition of thedarkness following the death of Jesus on the cross, the candles are removed from our presence. The Missal stand is removed. It holds the Bible and the service book, which contain all of the instructions and texts that guide our worship services, our readings and songs of praise. During Jesus’ suffering, songs of joy are not heard. Just as these songs are removed from our own lips, so too the Missal stand is removed. The Communion ware is removed. Jesus' Body and Blood have been given to us, have been shed for us, and are received by us with, in and under the form of the bread and wine. Just as He was removed from his followers when he was placed in the tomb, so, too, are the elements and the vessels of the Holy Eucharist removed from our sight. The altar itself is in the form of a Table. This is the place where our Lord Jesus Christ serves us as both host and meal at his sacred feast. The altar is dressed in fine linens and paraments fit for the Holy Meal. Just as Jesus' body was stripped of its coverings, we strip the coverings from the altar. (ReadPsalm 22.)
So we come to Good Friday, stripped. Tonight we will observe the service of Tenebrae. Darkness. To anyone who hears the story of the events of this week for the first time, perhaps it would seem anything but Holy and certainly not Good! For during Holy Week we commemorate the suffering and death of our Lord, especially during the Three Days. But this is Holy and Good News because this week marks the climax of Jesus' earthly ministry; through his death on the cross, he is the one source and power for our life with God.
In the events of the Three Days we face human nature at its worst. Jesus was left utterly alone by his closest friends. It started in the garden when his disciples couldn't stay awake and pray with him in his time of spiritual agony and terror at what was to come. He was betrayed, framed and railroaded into a dreadful, torturous crucifixion, the most shameful death the Romans could exact, reserved for the worst criminals. In spite of the fact that Rome's representative in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, found the accused "not guilty", he wasn't prepared to stand up to the Jewish religious leaders, who wanted him dead, and the rabble, whom they had stirred up. He especially feared the rabble and what they might do if they got out of control. Anger already simmered beneath the surface at Roman taxation and the extortion routinely practiced by her tax collectors. Rome prized peace above all else. And it was his job to maintain the famous Pax Romana in Jerusalem...at all costs. So, in a way, handing Jesus over to the executioners was a career move. These were experienced, hardened soldiers, cold to the plight of their victims, as you’d have to be to do such a job. And they didn’t really have a choice. When you enlisted in the Roman military, it was for thirty years, and you did as you were ordered or you suffered for it. Historian Peter Heather describes Roman military culture as being "just like the marines, but much nastier." (The Fall of the Roman Empire, MacMillan, 2005, pg. 6). So these hardened soldiers scourged Jesus, laid his own cross upon his torn and bleeding shoulders, and led him through the jeering throng of bystanders, boiling with pent up rage and bloodlust. We're familiar with such injustice and hatefulness in our world: people who make a show of decency, but turn a blind eye to the plight of the suffering; justice surrendered in the cause of expediency; cruelty, hatred and selfishness which lead to intense anger and revolt. This is real. This is the kind of world we live in. As the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, "There is nothing new under the sun."
But this story is really, first of all, about Jesus Christ. The wonder-working healer, the thrilling preacher and brilliant teacher has become the victim, enduring suffering, pain and death. Not only that, it seems that the God, the Father, he loved, trusted and served with his whole heart has deserted him. This is death at its most profound. By taking on the sins of the world, Jesus tasted the bitterness of separation from God. This, too, is something we know a little about, isn't it? We have our problems, our weaknesses and failings. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Have you ever done something that created a wedge between yourself and a friend or family member? Maybe more than a wedge: a wall. Maybe they’ve forgiven you, but you can’t believe it, avoiding them whenever possible. Have you ever done something that you felt was just so awful, it seemed to you that God couldn’t possibly have any use for you? Perhaps you’ve said to yourself, “What’s the point? I’ve messed up so badly, God probably doesn’t even want to hear from me. I’m lucky he hasn’t already sent down a lightning bolt and burned me up on the spot!” Like Adam and Eve, maybe you try to hide from God, busying yourself with the daily routine, turning the music up a little louder, dulling the anxiety with another drink, or two. Or, maybe you’ve just gotten your priorities out of order and lost sight of heavenly things stopped giving that nurturing relationship with God first place. Think about your closest earthly relationships. They take nurturing and care, don’t they? They take time and energy or they wither. If God’s not a real part of your life, the same thing can happen. Not on his part–onyours. I’ve seen something on Facebook lately that says that “If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.” But the more excuses you make about doing God’s work, or about being too busy to attend church, or to take a few minutes for family worship and prayer, the greater the gulf you create in your own soul between you and God, the deeper the emptiness you'll feel. Well, Jesus felt all that on the cross. And it hurt him worse than any of the physical blows and sufferings he’d endured. Worse than the crown of thorns pushed into his scalp and the nails driven into his hands and feet. And he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then he knew he’d drained the cup ofsuffering to the dregs and, in so doing, had won the victory. Then he declared,“It is finished.” But he said something else, too. "Into your hands I commend my spirit." Even though he couldn't feel God's presence, by faith he knew he was there. He knew in his very soul that whatever became of him, God was in control and, to put it in contemporary language, "It was all good."
And he was right. For where was God? Waiting to raise up his Son on Easter morning! And that’s why we celebrate Lent and Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday and concluding with these intense Three Days. Because we have a God who loved us so much that “….he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17, NIV).